MUSIC

Kiesza: How Ballet, The Navy And Beauty Pageants Turned Me Into A Pop Star

10/23/2014 12:29 EDT
Adam Gasson via Getty Images
PLYMOUTH, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 15: Kiesza performs at MTV Crashes Plymouth at Plymouth Hoe on July 15, 2014 in Plymouth, England. (Photo by Adam Gasson/Getty Images and MTV Europe)

Kiesza, an effervescent 25-year-old singer-songwriter from Calgary, danced onto the world stage this past summer when her 90s dance-pop throwback "Hideaway" climbed the international charts, even hitting number one in the UK. Fuelled by a one-shot viral video of her dancing through Brooklyn, shot by her brother for less than $1000 and since watched 138 million (!) times, she also had breakout performances on David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and Ellen.

So as Keisza arrived in Toronto to talk about her debut album "Sound of a Woman," I planned to ask how crazy the past few months have been. But Kiesa Rae Ellestad's entire life has been crazy. The rising pop star also trained professionally as a ballerina and joined the navy, where she was such a good shot the army tried to recruit her to be a sniper. (She declined to avoid shooting actual people). Oh, and she competed in the Miss Universe Canada pageant and has written songs for Rihanna, Kylie Minogue and Icona Pop.

Again, she is 25.

Her first passion was dancing, which paid off in her public introduction via the "Hideaway" video, though she had to give ballet up at age 15 after a knee injury.

"It was the saddest thing ever," she tells Huffington Post Canada, but says she soon found a new passion in sailing. "I tend to sort of dive into things without worrying about risk or anything. Like when I get an idea, I tend to just go for it and see what happens. It's a big experiment essentially."

Becoming a sailor may seem an odd pursuit considering Calgary is, y’know, Calgary, but Kiesza joined the Royal Canadian Naval Reserves there and learned on the local reservoir before flying out to the west coast to sail tall ships. Of course, sailing didn't become a career, either. "I realized very quickly that a military structure is not meant for the most artsy person in the world," she laughs, but notes two vital takeaways from the experience.

"It definitely instilled a lot of discipline in me. You're taught that you can keep going in the military. Your point of collapse is not what you thought it was. Your body is built to survive and when you think you're going to collapse you still have so much more left in you. It taught me that I'm not as limited as the thoughts in my head."

There's also a lot of time to kill on the ocean so sailors play music to entertain each other. "I wrote my first song and I started guitar on the tall ship which led me to songwriting," she says. "The moment I wrote my first song I got addicted. It's what I want to be."

Interview continues after slideshow

Kiesza Songs

And so she just did it, attending first B.C.'s Selkirk College and then Boston's famed Berklee School of Music where she studied different instruments, genres and theories. But the music she wanted to make wasn't jazz or classical, it was the music that her mom loved from the early 90s. So the second single Kiesza released on her summer EP was a ballad cover of Haddaway's "What is Love," which came out in 1993 when she was four.

"My mom was obsessed with that sound and it just lived on in our household for like my entire childhood. I swear I was listening to that music in the womb! She was into Robin S "Show me Love") and Ce Ce Peniston ("Finally"). and I don't even know how she found that music because it wasn't even like what most people were even listening to in Calgary, like, we're like country people."

So this explains why Kiesza loves her retro-90s influence — a style that lovingly informs "Sound of a Woman," though the album's modern electronic production courtesy of collaborator Rami Samir Afuni prevents standouts like "No Enemiesz" and "Losin' My Mind" from sounding like time-capsule relics — but she has a theory why everyone else does, too.

"I think EDM being played to death for four years solid and having one tempo that you can only fist pump to — if you actually dance to it, you'll be out of breath — and then [me] coming in and having this deep house sound. It's like running long distance, you can dance to this music all night long."

She also credits her songwriter background, something she shares with a host of recent artists who made a similar background-to -foreground transition, including Charli XCX, Sam Smith and Bruno Mars.

"People become songwriters for the passion of writing music and they study the writing of music and they do things differently so they stand out,” she says. "I think just songwriters create their own pockets, so having these songwriters build their own careers I think they're taking music very seriously. They are their own catalysts because the music is unique to that person as opposed to catered to like a more manufactured artist.

"Charlie XCX is such an individual — she's the coolest person ever and I wish I was her. I'm like the nerd on the block, but I have my own thing, too."

The nerd on the block who was in the Miss Universe pageant?

"Yeah," she laughs. "I was the nerd in the pageant."

She says it was "completely out of character" but that she did it for her grandmother, who was Miss Trinidad and Miss Army, Navy and Air Force, as a way for them to bond. She just didn't expect to win Miss Calgary, much less make the top 15 in the Canadian stage of the Miss Universe pageant, but it had its benefits, too.

"I'm a 'yes person' so when an opportunity comes up that doesn't make sense I'm, like, 'Well how do I know that I don't like this or I don't fit in unless I've done it?' So I did it. I realize it wasn't for me, it's just too superficial, it's too catered around body image. Going into something like that and realizing that it's not something that fits me, now I understand a lot more what I would and what I wouldn't do [for success].

"I want people to listen to my music but if I just use my butt to market my music what am I really saying to my audience? And what am I teaching people? The only way for people to take you seriously is for them to look at your example and see what choices you make, for better or for worse."